Discovering that my Panamanian grandfather went to high school in Memphis

On our cross-country drive we stopped in Phoenix, Arizona for a couple days to visit my dad’s mom (my grandma), and his two sisters. This side of the family has an interesting background, as they were born in Panama and immigrated to the US in 1964. For most of my childhood and adult life, much of my father’s family have lived at a distance, mainly in Texas, and now in Arizona. I have caught bits and pieces of their fascinating story over the years but due to physical distance, and the notably reserved Arango communication style, there are still many things I’m discovering about their history.

Panamanian women: my aunt Irene, grandma Carmen, me, and aunt Itza. Photo taken June 2018.

My grandfather passed away several years ago, but my 90+ year-old grandma is still alive and alert as ever (Skyping and using Facebook regularly to keep in touch with family). Upon arriving at her home this past June, my grandmother brought out an old newspaper clipping to show to Jeff and I. It was from a high school in Memphis, Tennessee, dated 1943, and had an interview and article on my grandfather Ramiro “Ray,” who had been sent to the states to further his education.

I came to learn that my Panamanian grandfather, after a brief move to Mexico City, was then sent to the states to finish his high school education and graduated from Memphis Tech high school in 1944. He spent time at a few universities stateside before returning to Panama where he finished his college degree. He worked for years in Panama in the Canal Zone and then ran a very successful construction company before moving with his family to San Francisco in the mid-60’s. 

Why they emigrated is a whole other long story, but from what I understand, it boiled down to safety concerns. The political situation at the time was quite volatile and my grandfather ran a very lucrative company. If you backed the wrong side at the wrong time, you could end up on a one-way helicopter trip over the ocean. It was probably also hard for my grandfather to maintain political neutrality when his brother-in-law was in command of nearly half the Panamanian army at the time. My family has some interesting stories…

Anyway, I didn’t know my grandfather very well personally, but as I grow older I have come to respect not only his business acumen (running one of the largest construction companies in Panama, then having a successful career working for the US government, and then starting another profitable construction company for his son’s to inherit), but also his decision to leave behind potential financial and political power in Panama to prioritize the safety and well-being of his family.

So perhaps building on these sentiments, it was fun for me to read the newspaper clippings my grandmother presented to us that talked about my grandfather at age 17, before he had met her or begun his career. He came to the US by himself (although I think he had a relative in the city), barely knowing any English. And he came to Memphis, of all places, the city that we were heading to! I felt like I knew little about the setting and culture that we would be living in for this year, but my experience pales in comparison to his!  

Below I’ve transcribed the articles from the old paper, first is an apparent interview with him, and second is an article written about him. And yes, in the second article they repeatedly misspelled his name, so I kept it that way. Hope you enjoy this connection to the past:  


Memphis, Tennessee, May 21, 1943

Latin American Praises Tech and Faculty

When I arrived for the first time at Tech High, I did not have a clear idea about the school and the people of the United States.

Today, having spent some time at Tech High, I came to understand well the school and the people of this country.

Without daring to compare it with any other school I think that Tech High must be the best, or at least one of the best in Memphis.

Tech High is outstanding as a high school because it is directed by Mr. Highsaw, our principal; a man of extensive preparation and highly cultured. With the assistance of our fine faculty, Mr. Highsaw has made Tech High a very prominent educational institution.

The students here have made a very favorable impression upon me, their friendly conversations and greetings have made my short stay at Tech High much more pleasant. Students of Tech High seem to possess much school-spirit and most of them take pride in the accomplishments of their fellow classmates.

From my experiences at Tech High I have received a direct picture of the typical American school. I believe that the days I spent at Tech High will benefit me greatly during my later life, both in the United States and in my country.

Tech High Looks At Ramiro Arango

He has yet to see his first football game in the United States and he doesn’t like jitterbugging.

He is Romiro Arango from Panama City, probably the most interesting personality ever to enter Tech.

Romiro came to the United States only three months ago, but has done exceptionally well in making friends, becoming acquainted with our customs, and learning our language.

Although he has been here such a short time, his English has improved considerably, but he is still a little shy because he does not speak so well.

A member of Miss Linder’s class, Romiro is taking Math, Spanish, Mechanical Drawing, and Physical Education.

He takes an interest in all sports, but likes basketball best. His favorite subject is Math, and he wants to be a Civil Engineer when finishing school.

Romiro is a typical high school boy. He is seventeen years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall, has black curly hair, and dark impressive eyes. 

He likes to dance, but prefers waltzes and rhumbas to jitterbugging.

His teachers find him an exceptional pupil, his classmates call him a “swell fellow” and to all of us he’s a friendly, all-round guy.

Me in front of the old Memphis Tech High School where my grandfather went in the mid-40s. Though it officially closed as a high school in 1987 the historic building, built in 1927, still stands.

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